Lifting Worker Voices in the Pandemic: Interview with Briskella Garas

Briskella Garas works at the North River Wastewater Treatment Plant in northern Manhattan. She feels as if her employer has taken many steps to protect workers, including measures to enforce social distancing and provide PPE for any interactive work.
Photo of Briskella Garas
Wednesday, June 17, 2020

 

Lifting Worker Voices in the Pandemic: Briskella Garas
Interview - Conducted by Johnnie Kallas, Ph.D. Student (Labor Relations)
Cornell University School of Industrial and Labor Relations
Interview conducted on May 12th, 2020

 

Introduction:

 

Briskella Garas works at the North River Wastewater Resource Recovery Facility in northern Manhattan. She has been a deputy chief at the facility since 2019. The work at the facility is essential but often overlooked, as Briskella and her co-workers maintain public health for all of  New York City. She feels as if her employer has taken many procedures to protect workers, including measures to enforce social distancing and provide PPE for any interactive work. She is a member of IBEW Local 3.

 

Full Transcription:

 

Johnnie Kallas: How long have you worked in your field?
 

Briskella Garas: For wastewater treatment, I started in 2015. But I have been a DEP since 2007. I worked first for clean water and then for wastewater treatment. I work for the City of New York. I belong to IBEW Local 3 since 2015. No official position.
 

J: Can you describe your daily work routine?
 

B: We treat wastewater, manage stormwater, recover valuable resources to protect public health, and enhance the environment for all who live in NYC. 
 

My facility is North River Wastewater Resource Recovery Facility on 135th street in Manhattan. This plant has been around since 1985. Currently, we have a lot of construction projects. In many other plants, you would see maintenance and operation. Specifically for this plant, there’s a lot. You have big construction projects and maintenance. A lot of staff every day in the plant between contractors, vendors, and our plant staff. You come in the morning as deputy chief, I take part of maintenance and construction. In my partner’s absence, he takes care of operations. I can take care of his role and vice-versa. Come in the morning and see how many people you have. If you have any emergencies, you make sure the engineer can assign the people under him. You check equipment and make sure everything is working. We have a huge electric system and make sure all of the power centers are in place and functioning properly. It’s a big deal if power shuts down and needs to start emergency power generation. You can have a lot of surprises during the course of a day. The other day something broke and we have to take care of that. Even if you have plans it could change at any moment.
 

J: How has coronavirus impacted your work?
 

B: It came all of a sudden. Modifications had to be done quickly. Sometimes you modify something and the next day you change it to something else. This is a big challenge because there’s a lot of activity going on between plant staff, contractors, vendors. We had to act really fast and plan together. I have to stress this and no matter how much I stress it I can’t do so enough: we have a great chief here who cares about every employee here. He implemented the safety measures and communicated it directly to everyone at the beginning. We had to share the plan with everyone and get the employees to agree to what we’re doing. We came up with a lot of changes. We limited access to our facilities. We had most of our meetings turn into teleconference calls. Cleaning and disinfecting became more frequent and very detailed: refrigerator handles, microwaves, showers, everywhere. We had to schedule showering time because in wastewater treatment we have to shower at the end of the day. We have to sign in using a computer. We had to discontinue that for now and we had a person sign people in and out so you don’t have cross-contamination using the keyboard, mouse, computer. The most important thing is we socially distance. Some jobs need to be close, and those we give the option for masks. Now they have masks no matter what. We also limited our bathrooms to our staff. Contractors have their own bathrooms outside and no one can come use our main bathrooms in our facilities. We had the fear that we might go understaffed. We have to meet our wastewater treatment and we need minimum people to do this job. If we go below that it would create chaos. We were so lucky because of our upper management. He took initiative by himself in the beginning. He kept everybody safe.
 

So far we have not lost anybody thankfully. Even the cases that we had everyone recovered and came back to work. We also have disposable thermometers here and it’s optional for you to use if you would rather not manage your temperature at home. You can also go home if you are not feeling well and quarantine until you get the results.

 

J: So it sounds like this has not created a lot of economic hardship?
 

B: That’s true, it has not created a lot of economic hardship. Everybody healthy is coming in. We were so lucky that people were coming to work. We pulled together and supported each other. We cared about each other.
 

J: What has the IBEW done?
 

B: I’m not sure what the IBEW has done. It might be done behind the scene and I am not aware of it. The whole plant was on me when my chief’s mother passed away and my other deputy was out. If people needed time off we were flexible in getting them that. We understood the situation. 
 

J: How is NYC doing right now in general?
 

B: I think they are planning to open slowly. For essential workers, we are working every day and not much has changed. We need to be careful and follow CDC recommendations. I’m not really sure when nonessential workers will start going back.
 

J: Any other final thoughts?
 

B: Going forward I think things will change a little bit in regards to cleaning, disinfecting. It’s not going to be the same. Hoping that everybody will stay safe and healthy. We can do the job for New York City. 

 


Photo of Briskella Garas.